MARIETTA, Ga. – Perfect Game’s mission statement ever since beginning its rise to prominence nearly three decades ago has always emphasized creating opportunities and growing the game of baseball across boundaries and borders previously never crossed.
PG took a giant step towards establishing an international footprint in 2018-19 by holding European PG Series tournaments in the Czech Republic. Three years later, right here at the PG Junior National Showcase being played at the East Cobb Baseball Complex, the fruits of that labor were realized.
Michal Kovala, a 2023 right-hander/outfielder from Ostrava, Moravia in the Czech Republic, this weekend became the first product of those Euro events to perform at a national-level showcase event in the United States, this one on PG’s largest and most heavily scouted underclass stage.
“When I saw the email and the invitation, I was so happy because I know a lot of guys that are really good and they’re all here,” Kovala told PG Sunday morning, not long after throwing two shutout innings during the day’s opening game. “That made me feel like I had the chance to be good, too, and go to college, even D-I maybe. So I was really happy.”
Earning a scholarship to play college baseball right here in the United States is not just Kovala’s goal, it’s his dream. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 163 pounds and he’ll have his work cut out for him moving forward, but everything seems to be in place to make that dream a reality.
It’s already a story of drive and desire, promise and perseverance, sacrifice and success. Here is a teenager who has left family and friends behind a continent away to pursue the same carrot at the end of a stick that thousands of homegrown American prospects his age are also chasing.
The fact that Kovala even received that invitation to the PG Jr. National shows that decision-makers within PG already feel there’s a good chance Kovala can emerge on the other side standing tall, right alongside all of the other top prospects from the class of 2023 in attendance here.
While currently unranked himself, he is on a Gray Team roster on which every other 2023 prospect is ranked as a top-500 nationally, 15 of whom have already committed to D-I schools. Those numbers include top guys in No. 6 TayShaun Walton, a Miami commit out of Virginia, and No. 79 Dylan Questad, a Notre Dame commit from Wisconsin.
If his two innings of work here Sunday morning were any indication, he will most certainly continue to fill scouts’ notebooks with words of praise. He allowed one hit and struck out five in those two frames, showing a fastball that topped out at 89 mph and exemplary off-speed stuff.
The scouting report noted that Kovala “flashed a quick arm” and “filled up the zone” during his outing. The fastball “jumped out of his hand” and he was able to mix in a “parachute changeup” and a “tight spinning breaking ball” while remaining “very confident in his arsenal.” Simply put, the kid was impressive.
It’s not as if Kovala came completely out of nowhere. He actually debuted at a pair of PG Series events in Fort Myers in 2017 made possible through PG’s relationship with David Winkler, the head coach of the Czech Republic 18u National Team and the MLB Coordinator in the country.
“It wasn’t with the Czech National Team but it was just some of us guys from Czech playing in a tournament; it was a good experience,” Kovala said, adding that was the first time he had stepped foot in the United States.
Upon returning home, Kovala made his biggest impression with PG by taking part in a pair of events in the Czech Republic in both 2018 and 2019, first with the Prague Academy team at both the 2018 PG European Series Challenge and the PG Inaugural 15u European Classic.
PG returned in 2019 and Kovala performed with the Czech Baseball Academy Blue at both the PG European Challenge and the PG 16u European Classic, earning all-tournament honors in the latter. He worked 5 2/3 innings at the 16u Euro event, allowing one earned run (1.20 ERA) on two hits with nine strikeouts and four walks.
Kovala is now attending Combine Academy in Lincolntown, N.C., and performed for the championship-winning Combine team at the PG High School Showdown-Academies tournament in Hoover, Ala., in March. Kovala remembered fondly the first day of the playoffs when he learned in a hurry what bracket play at a PG tournament is all about.
“It was the first big tournament that we had and I must say that the team worked really good together,” he said. “We had three games in one day and the third one was the most important because that was an elimination game. Everybody was so tired but they (left) their heart out on the field and we won that game, so it was really great.”
It was at the Showdown-Academies where PG National Scouting Director Jered Goodwin first got a look at the young right-hander.
Kovala worked an inning at the Showdown, striking out one while showing a fastball that sat 86-88 mph but, as Goodwin said this weekend, he remembered thinking, “There’s a lot more there.” Goodwin also noted that the breaking ball is really coming along and is much better now than it was just four months ago. But the biggest jump, Goodwin said, has come with his command, and that’s huge.
“You can see there’s clear development especially coming over here and kind of learning our style of game; he’s picked up on it very, very quickly,” Goodwin added. “Going to an American college, that’s a big, big deal because it does get really, really fast when that comes about.
“It’s been impressive to see. Especially spending two more years here he’s going to fit in with the American game just with the short time he’s been able to develop and how fast he’s picked it up.”
Kovala, an excellent student who speaks seemingly flawless English, was even more succinct in his own evaluation:
“They say you become a product of your environment, right, so if everybody’s throwing hard here you’re eventually going to be throwing hard too, if you put in the work,” he said. “I think I put in the work and I gained 5 mile-per-hour since last fall; I think it’s been very beneficial for me.”
There can be drawbacks to pursuing your dream a half-a-world away from home, with the most obvious being the absence of immediate family. Kovala admitted that when he was home with his parents, his mom would do his laundry and cook his meals, and a lot of his other basic needs were similarly taken care of by his family members.
“When I got here, it was kind of a shock at first,” he said with a knowing grin. “But I got used to it and I’m taking care of myself now.”
At the start of the summer, Kovala was staying with FTB/Phillies Scout Team recruiter and former San Francisco Giants scout Tim Rock in the Orlando area. He is now living with FTB teammate Anthony Saleeba, a top-500 2023 catcher/outfielder from Jacksonville who has committed to South Florida; Saleeba is also here at the Jr. National Showcase this week.
And family is important. Michal’s dad, Petr Kovala, was a baseball guy himself having played with the Czech National Team during his younger years; older brother, Tomas Kovala, also plays. A true athletic family, Michal’s mom, Pavlína Kovalová, was a figure skater.
“My dad played and my brother always played baseball so I just kind of fit into the family; I’ve played baseball since I was 3 years old,” Kovala said. “It’s been my hobby since forever.”
The family does go against the grain somewhat in that regard because as Kovala points out baseball isn’t among the most popular sports in the Czech Republic, although through efforts like those put forth by MLB and PG, it’s gaining traction. Kovala called it a “small circle” of around 2,000 people nationwide who are currently involved with the game in his home country, and that intimacy kind of makes it all the more special.
“It’s so friendly; nobody is trying to be disrespectful,” he said. “Everybody is enjoying the league and just focusing on the baseball part of (the game) and not all the trash-talking, maybe.”
Kovala plans on sticking around the States for a while, returning home to the Czech only during a Christmas break with other brief visits sprinkled in when time allows. He is already rostered with FTB Tucci 2023 to play at both the PG 16u Florida Elite Championship in Sanford, Fla., June 23-26 and at the PG BCS 16u National Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., July 6-11. More dates are sure to be scheduled and Kovala will be ready for the attention he’s sure to receive.
“I’m not trying to focus on the scouts,” he said. “I’m just thinking in my head, one pitch at a time and I’m just trying to focus on my game.”
Michal Kovala has received tremendous support and encouragement from FTB/Phillies Scout team personnel, mentioning specifically the aforementioned Tim Rock and FTB founder George Gonzalez. He also wanted to be sure to give a big shout-out to the Saleeba family for putting a roof over his head when he’s not out on the road playing ball with all of his new-found American friends.
Kovala feels like the coaches he’s come into contact at FTB have put him on a path to success and they’re influence has been immeasurable:
“It’s been amazing; I’m enjoying every single second of it,” he said. “It’s been a really good opportunity for me and I’m just trying to make the most out of it. … It’s always good to meet new people, have good connections and it’s just awesome being here...This is so much fun, I’ll tell you that. I’m just trying to focus on my game and be the best I can be.”
And to think it all started in the big Czech Republic city of Ostrava where with the encouragement of his dad and his brother he first started playing baseball as a 3-year-old. Perfect Game helped open a gateway to the United States and each time opportunity knocked, Kovala continued to open the door. Maybe – and with each new outing it’s becoming more probable – college recruiters will be the next ones to come knocking.
That was always my dream from the start of my baseball career,” he said. “I told my mom even when I was little that I wanted to play baseball in America and now it’s happening; I’m really excited for it.”